The Rich Chossid Who Was Left Only With His Avodah

Reb Michoel Dworkin was a devout chossid of the Rebbe Rashab and Frierdiker Rebbe who experienced many travails in his life, but throughout them all his genuine avodah and devotion to the Rebbeim shone through. Presented in honor of his yahrzeit on Erev Shavuos.

By: Rabbi Michoel Seligson

Horav Hachossid Reb Michoel Dworkin was born in Oswet near Nevel 1866, in the month of Teves, the same year as the histalkus of the Tzemach Tzedek on the 13th of Nissan. 

After the histalkus of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, his youngest son the Rebbe Maharash became the fourth Rebbe of Chabad, succeeding his father. Almost all of the Rebbe Maharash’s older brothers served as Rebbes in various cities. One of the Rebbe Maharash’s brothers, the Maharil, an acronym for Reb Yehuda Leib, was the Rebbe of Kopust. Among the followers of the Maharil, who after his histalkus was followed by his son Reb Shlomo Zalman, was the Dworkin-Davidson family who had two children. The parents needed to make it appear as if their sons were from two separate families. The reason for this was because the Kantonist decree, in place at the time, drafted every Jewish boy who was not an only son. Therefore, the two children received separate family names, Dworkin and Davidson, and were saved from being drafted into the Russian army.     

The young Michoel Dworkin followed in his father’s ways and traveled to Reb Shlomo Zalman.  After Reb Shlomo Zalman’s histalkus in 1900, Reb Michoel’s father turned to his son and said, “Michoel, I know that you cannot live without a Rebbe, and that you need a Rebbe. You travel to Lubavitch to the Rebbe RaShaB, and we (your family) will decide whom we will follow.” This is how Reb Michoel arrived in Lubavitch.

Reb Michoel had a good business sense and dealt primarily in real estate. His business blossomed and his money grew as his property was developed. He owned many buildings in the city of Petersburg, and had great success in buying and selling forest lands. There was a period of time that he was entrusted with the forest businesses of the Razo, Reb Zalman Aharon, the Rebbe RaShaB’s brother. He arrived in Lubavitch in the summer of 1900 with a shturem. He felt and sensed the light, and immediately became mkushar to the Rebbe.

In a short time, he became close to the Rebbe RaShaB and was considered a member of the household. On every occasion that he came to Lubavitch, he brought gifts for the Rebbe RaShaB, the Previous Rebbe and for the daughters of the Previous Rebbe.

“You should also be a graf”

During a Farbrengen in the 1940’s, Reb Michoel recalled. “Once before Pesach, I bought an expensive chair with red upholstery, resembling the chairs used by the aristocracy.  I arranged to have the gift delivered to the Rebbe RaShaB. I arrived   early on Erev Pesach and the delivery man carried the chair into the house. The Rebbe and the Rebbetzin were sitting at the table at a meal. I told the mover to place the chair in a corner. When the Rebbe saw the chair he told me. ‘This is the chair of a graf, a count. You should also be a graf.’ He added, ‘Graf in Hebrew is the acronym for Gezunt, Reich and Frum, healthy, rich and religious.’”

Reb Michoel concluded, “In reality, all the blessings were fulfilled in me. Health, Boruch Hashem, I am healthy.” Reb Michoel was known as a strong man even when he reached his eighties. “Rich, what am I missing?” When Reb Michoel told this story, he was truly poverty-stricken and did not have enough money for food. This did not have an impact on him since he didn’t feel that he was missing anything. “Religious, in this matter there are no limitations.”

Reb Michoel had become impoverished because the Russian government had confiscated all of his buildings and properties. He lost everything except for his liveliness and joy, which remained undiminished. When he later came to the United States the Previous Rebbe gave Reb Michoel money every month. The Rebbe specified that Reb Michoel should not be told the source of the money. 

Telling a story

Reb Yisroel Tzvi Heber recalled. “When Reb Michoel told a story, he would include all the details. The listeners felt as if they were seeing the events take place in front of their eyes. You felt as if you were there, especially if he told a story that related to the Rebbe’im.”  

Hiskashrus to the Rebbe

An example of his hiskashrus to the Rebbe’im was an anecdote that was recounted by the Previous Rebbe in a Sicha in 1948, referring to the Pesach hiddurim of his father, the Rebbe RaShaB. The Rebbe RaShaB would re-kasher the Pesach vessels every year, although they had been used exclusively for Pesach the previous year. Among the vessels that were being kashered was a samovar, a hot water urn. Once, the Rebbe RaShab placed his hand into the samovar while it was full of boiling water. Reb Michoel, present at the time, screamed, “Oy Rebbe!”, as if he himself had burned his hands.

Talent in singing

Reb Michoel had a talent for negina, singing.  He knew how to sing and to play the violin. He felt very uncomfortable when someone would sing a nigun incorrectly, even if it was only slightly inaccurate or lacking emphasis on a particular note.

Singing a nigun correctly

Occasionally when Reb Michoel heard someone singing a nigun incorrectly, he would tell them the following story. “There was a poor wild young boy who was wearing patched pants. One day the children agreed that everyone should contribute a kupke, a small coin in Russian currency, to be placed in a box. The boy who would identify a piece of the original un-patched pants material, would be awarded all the money in the box. The judge was the boy who was wearing the pants. All the children approached him and pointed at different parts of the pants, claiming that a certain piece was the original pants material. The boy argued that his entire pants were made up of one patch on top of another and there was nothing left of the original material”.    

Reb Michel Zlotshuver’s Nigun

One of the nigunim was very dear to Reb Michoel. It was the famous nigun that the Tzadik Reb Michel of Zlotshuv, one of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples sang for the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov once said, “If any person, wherever he may be, will sing this nigun; I will hear it and awaken mercy on his behalf.”

In a talk in 1941, the Previous Rebbe described an episode that took place in 1916 on Pesach. Reb Michoel sang this nigun for the Rebbe RaShab at a Farbrengen. At the conclusion of the nigun, the Rebbe RaShaB said that he had heard two versions of this nigun. His father, the Rebbe Maharash, chose Reb Michoel’s version. The Previous Rebbe later repeated his father’s comment on Reb Michoel’s singing of the nigun, “In this nigun we sense the Baal Shem Tov.”    

In Leningrad, the Previous Rebbe once handed Reb Michoel a cup of mashke and requested that he sing the nigun. Reb Michoel said, “Anytime the Rebbe will give me a cup of Mashke, I will sing the nigun of Reb Michela.”   

In 1978, Reb Yaakov Katz of Chicago, who merited to exceptional kiruvim from the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe, requested a Yechidus after Yud Shvat because he had something special to show the Rebbe. The Rebbe approved an appointment for Yechidus. During the Yechidus, Reb Yankel played a tape of Reb Michoel singing Reb Michel Zlotshuver’s nigun as well as another nigun. Reb Yankel asked the Rebbe if he knew who was singing. The Rebbe responded, “Yes, it is Reb Michoel Dworkin.” Later, the Rebbe instructed that these nigunim should be included in one of the Lubavitch Nichoach records. It is titled Shnei Nigunim. It contains the two nigunim, Reb Michel Zlotshuver’s nigun and the other nigun, both sung by Reb Michoel in the 1940’s.   

There is a lively joyful nigun introduced by Reb Michoel that was sung at many of the Rebbe’s Farbrengens. When this nigun was sung when the Rebbe distributed Kos Shel Brocho, he would place his kos on the table and with both hands would encourage the singing of this nigun.  

“Michoel is a Maal’och.”

During a Farbrengen with the Rebbe RaShaB, at some point between 1917 and 1920, there was a lot of pushing and the Rebbe asked, “Why is there pushing?” Someone called out, “Michoel the shaigetz.” The Rebbe commented, “Michoel is not a shaigetz, he is a Maal’och.”

At another Farbrengen, Reb Michoel was standing on a chair. The Rebbe said, “Michoel is a name of a Maal’och and they are considered omdim, ‘standing’. This refers to the fact that the malachim appear to be standing as they are elevated from one level  to a second level, each level within range of the other. Reb Michoel then said “Rebbe, I do not want to be an omed but only near the Rebbe.” 

Reb Michoel had a note, recording an answer from the Rebbe RaShaB that he privately kept in one of his sforim. The Rebbe RaShaB gave permission to Reb Michoel to remain throughout the winter near the Rebbe RaShaB since he had a sufficient amount of money to cover his expenses. The Rebbe added, “When I will have time I will converse with him. He will enjoy it and I will also enjoy it.” 

After the histalkus of the Rebbe RaShaB on the 2nd of Nissan in 1920, Reb Michoel committed himself as a chossid to the Previous Rebbe, although the Rebbe was fourteen years younger than him. Reb Michoel recalled an unusual experience that took place during the beginning years of the Previous Rebbe’s nesius. “On the Shabbos before Shavuos, the Rebbe delivered a Chassidic discourse. I tried to concentrate and understand the Maamor. It was difficult for me and I dozed off. In my dream, I saw the Rebbe of Kopust. He was wearing white garb and a shtreimel, and was descending to the bima. I became terrified and woke up.

After the conclusion of the Maamor I was still shaken up. The Rebbe turned to me and with a smile and said, ‘Yes, yes, today is malchus shebyesod, the Kopuster’s yahrzeit.’” In another version it is cited that Reb Michoel wanted to relay the dream to the Rebbe and before he began speaking, the Rebbe asked him, “When is the Kopuster’s yahrzeit, not malchus shebyesod?”    

Missions in Russia

Reb Zev Zalmanov recalled, “From 1920 until 1928, Reb Michoel, as a member in the Rebbe’s household, participated in the activities to strengthen Torah and Mitzvos throughout Russia. It happened on more than one occasion that Reb Michoel fulfilled secret missions for the Rebbe and upon his return would brief the Rebbe on the mission.  

Reb Rafael Kahan related, “I was standing in the train station in Warsaw sometime between 1910 and 1916. A train arrived from Russia, and among the arriving passengers were the Previous Rebbe and Reb Michoel. Both seemed preoccupied, looked serious, and walked quickly. It was obvious that they did not want to stand out. They hired a driver and left the station.”

In 1927 in Tamuz, Chassidim found out through Reb Michoel that the Previous Rebbe was being exiled to Kastrama after his release from Shpalerka, where he had been incarcerated for sixteen days. Reb Michoel received this information from the father of one of the Previous Rebbe’s investigators. He traveled to Kastrama for Shabbos and awaited the Rebbe’s arrival. Two chassidim, Reb Michoel and Reb Elye Chaim Althaus were in Kastrama with the Rebbe and his daughter, the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka who was not yet married at the time. The Rebbe noted that Reb Michoel’s trip to Kastrama was comparable to Yehuda being sent by Yaakov to Egypt to establish a yeshiva prior to Yaakov’s arrival. Reb Michoel also established a cheder, a school for young children, and repaired the Mikva in Kastrama.

Reb Michoel’s sacrifice at this time and place was exceptional. It was for these very institutions that the Rebbe had been imprisoned. At the very same time that the Previous Rebbe was in exile as a result of this work, Reb Michoel arrived in the city of exile and continued the work of establishing chadorim and building Mikvaos.

When Reb Michoel received the news that the Rebbe had been released, he took mashkeh and began dancing and singing, “Nyet nyet nikova”.

In 1934, six years after the Previous Rebbe left Russia, Reb Michoel was able to successfully leave Russia as well and come to Riga. Reb Menachem Mendel of Kublunov recalled. “I was a youngster when Reb Michoel arrived and my father supplied him with a machine to sew socks. Part of the day Reb Michoel was occupied with this task. We only knew that his name was Reb Michoel Dworkin. He had a son, Mumke, Menachem, who lived separately, studied in Nevel and was ordained as a shochet. In WWII he was drafted into the army and from then on was never heard from again. Some say he was killed in the war, according to others, he was nifter in prison.”

In Riga Reb Michoel again met with the Previous Rebbe and his joy was boundless. Reb Michoel initiated an effort to assist Yidden who were still in Russia, suggesting that everyone should contribute money. The Previous Rebbe was very pleased with this initiative.

In Riga, Reb Michoel remarried. He settled in Israel, residing first in Ramat Yitzchok and then in Bnai Brak. In his first years in Israel he exerted himself tirelessly on behalf of Anash in Russia to assist them in immigrating to Israel. Over the course of the years he received encouraging letters from the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe regarding these activities. Reb Michoel’s friendship with Anash was primarily with the Chassidim in Tel Aviv. He would sit and Farbreng with them for many hours. Reb Sholom Haskind recalled, “Reb Michoel was a warm and hartziger person. His manner of speaking was quiet and pleasant. Although he suffered pain, he did not discuss it with anyone or referred to it. His personal opinions, he reserved for himself and did not discuss his difficulties with anyone. He always had a smiling and joyful face”.

Heartfelt person

Reb Michoel would study Chassidus for hours in the Merkos Chabad shul in Tel Aviv. Reb Leib Zalmanov recalled, “Reb Michoel said to me, ‘Leibel, let us study a Maamor’. I took out a sefer and opened to the Maamor Balaylo Hahu. Reb Michoel began learning the Maamor, and when he reached the word ‘[Nod’do Shnas] Hamelech’, he stopped, began breathing heavily, and suddenly broke down and began sobbing. It was as if he had reached the word “Hamelech” in theRosh Hashana shacharis that awakens fear in a person. When he davened for the omud, quite often he would break down and cry. On one occasion, when he reached the words in kedusha “Our eyes should visualize your kingdom” he burst into intense sobbing.

In the 1930’s Reb Michoel was residing in Israel and had a strong yearning to see the Rebbe. He tried many times to apply for entry into the United States, but to no avail. After WWII ended, he renewed his efforts. The United States government advised that in order to immigrate he needed to be invited by a United States resident. He was classified a Chassidic researcher visiting U.S. libraries.

In 1946, Reb Michoel arrived in the United States. Reb Shimon Goldman shared his memories of Reb Michoel. “Reb Michoel demonstrated a genuine Chassidic image. His unbrushed beard and pe’os stood out, his clothing was simple and on his shoulder he carried a bag resembling the Yidden who left Egypt.  Reb Michoel did not have the title of Rav or mashpia but was considered a Balebos. All his acquaintances testified that he was a true chossid.”

Reb Michoel was cherished by the Previous Rebbe who would mention Reb Michoel in his Sichos, especially when the nigun of Reb Michel Zlotshuver Nigun was sung. An interesting event took place on a Shabbos morning when Manya, a helper in the Previous Rebbe’s house told the Rebbe said that she saw Reb Michoel, across Eastern Parkway walking to Reb Haskind’s house at 763 Eastern Parkway. The Rebbe said, “Michoel is not going to Reb Berel’s house but to Yochanon’s [Gordon] house.” Manya was curious since Reb Yochanon lived on the opposite side of the parkway. She watched to see what would take place. Reb Michoel knocked on Rabbi Haskind’s door but he was not home. Reb Michoel then continued walking, and crossed the street to Reb Yochanon’s house.

Reb Michoel’s hiskashrus to the Previous Rebbe was outstanding. His entire being was dedicated to his connection to the Rebbe and as a devoted Chossid he did not see himself as a separate entity. Someone once asked Reb Michoel “Vos macht ir”, how are you? To which he answered, “Vos ken shoen a gemachter machen”, what can a created [being] create?

The Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, the Previous Rebbe’s wife, once offered Reb Michoel one of her husband’s hats. Reb Sholom Haskind picked up the hat for Reb Michoel. Since it was during the days of sefira Reb Michoel planned to begin wearing the hat on Shovuos. He was nifter on Erev Shvuos and the hat remained with Rabbi Haskind.

Reb Michoel’s permit to stay in the United States needed to be renewed from time to time. After Pesach 1949, the Previous Rebbe instructed him to return to Israel. When Reb Michoel heard the Rebbe’sdirective, he became upset sensing that this message signified the end.

On Erev Shvuos, Reb Michoel prepared himself for Yom Tov and on his way back from the Mikva, he purchased cherries so that he could make the blessing of Shehecheyonu after sefira. He visited Reb Berel Haskind and then returned to his apartment on Park Place between Kingston and Brooklyn Avenues. He felt ill and was nifter a short while later.

The Rebbe, the son-in-law of the Previous Rebbe, immediately arranged that the levaya should take place before Shovuos. After the levaya, Chassidim returned from the Bais Hachaim and were not able to ride all the way back to Crown Heights. Yom Tov had arrived and they had to get out of the cars and walk. When the Chassidim returned, the Rebbe advised them not to walk on Eastern Parkway in order that the Previous Rebbe should not see anything unusual that would raise suspicion and cause him aggravation.

At the first seuda on Shovuos night, the Previous Rebbe asked, “Where is Michoel”? The Rebbe avoided answering. The same thing happened the next day. On the second day of Shovuos the Previous Rebbe asked as he stared upward, “When did this happen?”

One of the distinguished older Chassidim, Reb Shmuel Levitin, commented on Reb Michoel’s refusal to return to Israel and stubborn insistance on remaining near the Rebbe. Reb Michoel’s wish was actually fulfilled. After Yud Shvat 1950, a resting place was designated for the Previous Rebbe. It was right near Reb Michoel’s

Yehi Zichro Boruch! May Reb Michoel, a legendary hartziger chossid known for his sense of extraordinary sense of devotion and commitment to the Rebbe’im, who merited to fulfill secret missions for the Previous Rebbe, initiated activities on behalf of the Yidden in Russia and was always seen with a joyful face; serve as the inspiration to commit ourselves to the Rebbe, his directives and missions, and to assist our fellow-Jews with a joyful feeling and liveliness.

We should speedily witness “The ones who dwell in the dust will awaken and rejoice” with Reb Michoel among them.

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